Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Sentencing (and) the Underclass

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Sentencing (and) the Underclass

Article excerpt

Thomas G. Blomberg & Stanley Cohen, eds. Punishment and Social Control: Essays in Honor of Sheldon L. Messinger. Foreword by Philip Selznick. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995. x + 318 pp. $46.95.

Chris Clarkson & Rod Morgan, eds. The Politics of Sentencing Reform. New York: Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press, 1995. vi + 287 pp. $59.00.

Todd R. Clear. Harm in American Penology: Offenders, Victims, and Their Communities. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. xvi + 242 pp. $74.50 cloth; $24.95 paper.

Michael Tonry. Malign Neglect: Race, Crime and Punishment in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pp. xii+233. $25.00 cloth; $11.95 paper.

Michael Tonry. Sentencing Matters. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Pp. vii + 222. $29.95 cloth.

The primary principle underlying the physician's oath is nonmaleficence: "first, do no harm." These five books present the best contemporary thinking about trends in criminal sentencing and philosophies of punishment; taken together, they of fer the physicians' wise counsel to modern politicians, judges, and citizens across the globe.

The caution is especially germane because debates about sentencing reform-indeed, debates about crime and justice generally-occur in the wider context of postindustrial social change. To comprehend both the manifest and the latent functions of punishment and how the courts can or cannot impose just sanctions on people convicted of crime, we must take account of the world from which the offenders and the courts themselves come. These five books all provide rich consideration of issues related to inequality and the political choices we make about punishment. All five volumes present thoughtful overviews of how penal philosophies have changed over the past 25 years, offered either as theoretical reflections or as legislative histories and impact evaluations. All five present sober analysis of sentencing reforms that have not only failed to reduce disparities among various racial and economic classes but also have exacerbated the tension between equal treatment in the courts and the drive to process tremendous numbers of offenders from the urban underclass.

The link between inequality and current sentencing policies is a primary subject in Clear's Harm in American Penology and Tonry's Malign Neglect. Clear chronicles the tremendous boom in size and power of "the penal harm machine" over the past two decades, and he asks and answers the question: Why did this happen? By contrast, Tonry's starting point is the jurisprudence of sentencing, not corrections, although he arrives at the same question and answer that Clear does. Both implicate crime-control ideologues in inflaming the extraordinary punitiveness of the American public, and doing so while including an unspoken but very real degree of racism in their ideology. While Clear and Tonry believe that these arguments and agendas have produced a contemporary obsession with harsh punishment, other scholars whose work is reviewed here contend that "popular punitiveness"1 is a preexisting cultural characteristic springing from a variety of sources.

Social inequality is not the explicit focus of the other works reviewed here, all of which seek to explain sentencing and how it has changed, although race and inequality are constant subterranean themes. Tonry's Sentencing Matters, for instance, is an encyclopedic compendium of sentencing theory and reform in the United States, beautifully written and organized around a set of eight prescriptions for change that Tonry says are the logical outcomes of studying the reforms. In Sentencing Matters, Tonry's scholarly "good cop" book, and Malign Neglect, his angry "bad cop" political book, the aim is to get American politicians to confess to malpractice in setting up the sentencing reforms of the past two decades and to do penance by repealing the worst of these laws. …

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